Movement of athletes among Lee County high schools the new normal

Movement of athletes among Lee County high schools the new normal


Movement of athletes among Lee County high schools the new normal


If a Lee County high school football team has a bad season, chances are names will vanish from its roster — and it’s not because players have graduated, moved or given up the sport.

For an increasing number of Lee County football players, loyalty — and school enrollment — shifts according to which schools are successful.

Despite district policies meant to forbid transfers for athletic reasons, students and parents are using the school choice system to leave losing programs and transfer to winning ones.

“There is movement occurring because of athletics, I’ll be the first one to tell you that,” Fort Myers High School Principal David LaRosa said. “If we want to act like there isn’t, we’re putting our heads in the sand. “Some of these parents are out there shopping their kids around. It’s not right what’s happening.”

While a growing number of Florida school districts have strengthened athletic transfer regulations, sidelining students who move schools for sports for 365 days, Lee County’s only safeguard is requiring parents to sign a waiver stating their child isn’t changing schools for extracurricular reasons.

The value of that document, of course, depends upon the person signing it.

“We would expect parents to be honest and truthful when they’re making those decisions,” said Jeff Spiro, the district’s executive director of high school development. “That’s what we hope for.”

That’s a worthy sentiment, but one that doesn’t fit with the present-day realities of high school athletics, where today more than ever, the end — a college scholarship — justifies whatever means are necessary in many parents’ minds.

Last spring, LaRosa was part of a Lee principals’ committee that recommended the district toughen its transfer policy for athletes for the 2013-14 school year. School-district attorney Keith Martin’s opinion was that a 365-day ban would violate the Florida statute governing athletics in public schools and the proposal was shelved.

While that opinion can be debated, the need for such a policy in Lee County shouldn’t be, not when considering the divergent paths traveled by Island Coast and Mariner.

Power plays

In recent years, there has been a noticeable shift in the competitive balance among Lee County football programs, creating a clear division of have and have-nots, with recently minted programs like Island Coast and South Fort Myers emerging as local powers.

Island Coast, whose football team boasts the highest winning percentage in Lee County since its program began in 2008, has been a prime destination for migrating athletes. An analysis by The News-Press determined that 41 percent of the players listed on the Gators’ varsity roster this season had played football at another Lee County high school before transferring to Island Coast. Twelve arrived following the 2012 football season, seven coming from Mariner.

The newcomers helped the Gators win the District 5A-14 championship and qualify for the state playoffs for the fourth time in the past five seasons. Mariner, meanwhile, hasn’t made the playoffs since 2004 and didn’t field a junior varsity football team for the first time in the school’s 27-year history because it needed to move its JV players up after losing 33 of its 46 varsity players from 2012 to graduation, transfers and lack of interest. When the two schools met this season, Island Coast won, 61-6.

Following last week’s 49-6 loss to Cape Coral in its season finale, Mariner first-year head coach James Hale expressed appreciation for the 13 varsity players who returned to endure a trying season that saw them outscored 446-86 on their way to a 1-9 finish.

“(A lot of players) left and they could have left, too, but they chose to stay,” Hale said. “You have to give them a lot of credit for that, staying loyal to the school and this community.”

The FHSAA confirmed it had received no official complaint alleging any wrongdoing by the Island Coast football program regarding the dozen football players who transferred to the school. In the past, a large group of athletes leaving one school and transferring as a group to another would inevitably have caught the organization’s attention. But times, and policies, have changed.

“This is the new normal,” said Denarvise Thornton, FHSAA associate executive director. “It’s where high school sports are in terms of (athlete) movement.”

The Pasco way

Like Lee County, the Pasco County School District has 13 public high schools. Its combined 2013-14 enrollment of 19,757 students is about 2,000 fewer than Lee’s.

While Pasco’s student assignment system is mostly based on single-school boundaries, students can attend a school outside their boundary through a School Choice waiver.

Unlike Lee, Pasco decided to put an athletic transfer policy in place this year, one that closely mirrors a Hillsborough County initiative started in fall 2012.

“I don’t think we had rampant issues with transfers or recruiting or anything like that,” said Phil Bell, Pasco County’s supervisor of athletics and facilities. “It was more of us being proactive with all of the changes that were happening with the FHSAA. We wanted to get in front of that because there’s more responsibility on the districts to make calls on the gray areas.”

Pasco’s policy states students who transfer high schools cannot participate in athletics for one calendar year from their transfer date. All transfers who wish to appeal the policy go before a district transfer committee and must present evidence of a full and complete change of address, a School Choice waiver not based on athletics, a medical and/or psychological need or similar exceptions.

Bell said Pasco’s committee is scheduled to meet at least once a month (twice during August and September) and estimated it’s ruled on 105 appeals this fall. Of those, six were denied.

“(The denials) were for different reasons but the obvious one is the committee felt like some were solely for athletic reasons,” Bell said.

Like Lee County, Pasco and Hillsborough had their school-district attorneys check Florida statutes to ensure their transfer policy wouldn’t violate state law. In an email explaining his opinion, Lee’s Martin highlighted a sentence in Florida statute 1006.20 that reads: “The (FHSAA) bylaws shall also allow the student to be eligible in the school to which the student has transferred during the school year if the transfer is made by a deadline established by the FHSAA, which may not be prior to the date authorized for the beginning of practice for the sport.”

“I don’t believe a school board policy cannot take away a right granted to a student by statute,” Martin wrote. “I cannot speak to what other school districts are doing.”

However, Bell and Hillsborough County athletic director Lanness Robinson said their districts were confident their policies were permissible. Both pointed to the very next sentence of that statute Martin cited, which reads, in part: “These transfers shall be allowed pursuant to the district school board policies in the case of transfer to a public school” as well as FHSAA Bylaw 9 which governs student eligibility and notes in Section that “Schools and/or school district may adopt more stringent rules (than the FHSAA) for the students under their supervision.”

“We definitely received a different opinion,” said Robinson, who added Hillsborough has denied approximately 7 percent of the 500 or so appeals it’s received in the past year. “We’re confident we’re doing what the law allows us to do.”

Lee stance

Lee County Superintendent Nancy Graham, who joined the district last May, after the principals’ proposed athletic transfer policy was submitted and reviewed, said in an email that “there has been no official district conversation on athletic bans” this year.

Graham added, “In my brief tenure, neither (athletic directors) nor coaches have approached me with student assignment issues. I would hope they are aware there are internal avenues to have that conversation.”

The News-Press contacted all 13 Lee high school football head coaches and asked each if they would be in favor of a 365-day ban for athletic transfers. Six said yes, one chose not to comment and the rest either didn’t respond or said they were instructed not to comment by the school district.

Also, because the school district’s student assignment office doesn’t track a specific mobility rate for student-athletes, there’s no official data on how many transfer schools.

“Is there a perception out there that kids move for athletics? Sure, coaches do have that perception,” Spiro said. “But do we know for a fact that hardcore data shows that happens? You can’t quantify that because kids can’t go for athletic reasons.”

Also, because the school district’s student assignment office doesn’t track a specific mobility rate for student-athletes, there’s no official data on how many transfer schools.

But they are, and it’s not confined to football players.

In contrast to its disappointing football season, the Mariner boys basketball team is expected to be one of the county’s most formidable squads. The Tritons are shooting for their third consecutive district championship and fifth straight state playoff appearance. Those lofty goals are a bit more attainable thanks to the arrival of senior transfer Kaleb Darrett, who averaged 16.8 points, 5.9 rebounds and 4.3 steals last season.

Darrett’s previous high school? Island Coast.


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